by Dr. Terry Rials
The church in America is in big trouble – that’s what all the experts are saying. The church has been in a serious decline for a long time. Scholars cannot even agree upon when the decline began, but Southern Baptist Churches have experienced a steady decline in baptismal rates since 1956, its banner year. It has been sliding downhill since. In the last decade, Southern Baptist Churches have seen church membership decline by 10%, Sunday School decrease by 15%, baptisms drop over 30%, and the number of people joining Baptist churches plummet by nearly 50%! It’s easy to talk about the churches somewhere else who are experiencing this, but this phenomenon is hitting too close to home. We have this problem right here in our Association. As I look at the statistics, it’s happening to nearly ninety percent of the churches in the Association, maybe even to the one to which you belong.
What are we doing about this steady decline? Some sit around and talk about the ‘good old days’ and do nothing because they don’t agree with what is happening. Some ascribe blame and we’ve seen plenty of that. Some blame those who hold to an old, outmoded traditionalism, which isn’t working anymore. Some blame the mega churches of stealing members from smaller churches. Some blame their pastor or denominational leaders for the decline. Some blame the lack of door-to-door evangelism, the lack of churches holding revivals, the lack of discipleship training programs, or failure of the church to keep up with culture. The truth is – there is enough blame to go around. For many of you, this is the first time you’ve heard of this problem.
As in the days of Nehemiah, we need to look around at our crumbling walls and discover that we are a reproach to the name of our Lord (see Neh1:3). A reproach is a condition of shame, an occasion given to the enemy for him to exult in our defeat. Every Sunday with an empty parking lot, an empty building, and empty altar is a reproach to his name. We need earnest repentance, honest admission, and public confession (Neh 2:17). The problem is with us, all of us.
The good news is that leaders are addressing this problem like never before. We learned that it doesn’t come from a national movement; we’ve seen plenty of those in the past fifty years. The Church Growth Movement, the Church Health Movement, the Missional Church Movement, and the Emerging Church Movement have each tried to turn-around the church, so far with very limited success. The real pattern for success is the biblical one, alluded to by famed preacher G. Campbell Morgan, who metaphorically challenged young preachers to put their sailboats out into the water, put up the sail and wait for the wind to blow. We need a movement of God, but the wind of God isn’t blowing.
In the next five articles, I would like to explore the journey of leading churches back to vitality and life. We’ll explore how to set the sails and wait for the wind of God to blow.